Alfred Adler may be the most interesting and insightful psychologist that most of us have never heard of. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Austrian psychologists from the early 20th century, are both household names. Adler was a contemporary who introduced a theory of “individual psychology”.
I just finished Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s book, The Courage to Be Disliked, which provides a compelling intro to Adlerian psychology structured as a Socratic dialogue. I highly recommend it.
Adler’s theory, which is as much philosophy as psychology, contains echoes of Buddhism and Stoicism. Here’s my best attempt at a summary.
Teleology vs. Etiology
Adler believed that trauma and etiological cause-and-effect are misunderstood. You don’t act or feel a certain way because of events in your past. Assuming that your past drives the present is a form of determinism. Adler believed that you act or feel a certain way because you chose to and you use your past or other circumstances to justify the behavior. Example: You didn’t perform poorly in school because your teachers didn’t like you. You chose not to perform well at school and you’re blaming it on your teachers.
You may have chosen your lifestyle subconsciously or when you were young, but you chose it. If you chose once, you can choose again. Free will reigns over determinism.
All Problems are Interpersonal Relationship Problems
Adler believed that all problems are interpersonal relationship problems. It sounds crazy at first, but the more I think about it the more I believe this to be true. Fight with your spouse? Obviously, an interpersonal relationship problem. Anxious about giving a presentation? Interpersonal relationship problem: your relationship with the audience and their perception of you. Inferiority complex? Interpersonal relationship problem: your subjective perception of yourself compared to others is negative.
The solution is simple, but not easy. You must separate your “life tasks” — the things you can control — from other people’s life tasks. You can’t control what other people think of you, so why worry about it? You can’t control whether another person cheats or takes advantage of you, so approach relationships with unconditional trust. This boils down to self-acceptance. If you’re comfortable in your own skin and control what you can control, nothing else matters. Have the courage to be disliked and live your life your own way. If someone dislikes you, it means you’re living freely, the way you want to live.
Confidence in Others
This isn’t to say that we should eschew interpersonal relationships. They’re a critical component to a meaningful life, but we must approach them in the right way. Adler distinguishes between vertical relationships and horizontal relationships. Vertical relationships are hierarchical — boss / employee, parent / child, coach / player. Horizontal relationships are egalitarian and treat everyone as equals. Adler believed that all relationships should be horizontal. We should have confidence in others and not try to manage or manipulate (or be manipulated).
Contribution to Others
In addition to self-acceptance and confidence in others, the third pillar of Adler’s view of a happy life is feeling that you contribute to others. You don’t even have to contribute through your acts. Recognize that just being contributes to someone. An elderly grandparent in a nursing home doesn’t necessarily “do” much that is useful. But she’s loved by her family and her existence adds value to their lives. Recognizing, and embracing that, is the key to happiness. Adler’s three pillars: Self-acceptance, confidence in others, and contribution to others reinforce each other in a positive feedback loop.
Life is Like a Series of Moments
The final key takeaway is understanding that life is a series of moments. Think of life as a dance. When you dance with a partner, you may end up somewhere different than where you started, but moving from Point A to Point B isn’t the goal. Dancing is the goal. Life is similar. If you focus your entire life on accomplishing a specific goal, but fall short, you’ll end up feeling meaningless. Focus on the journey, not the destination. You can’t control the past or the future, only the present, so embrace it, enjoy it, and live mindfully and aware.
If you found this post interesting, definitely check out Kishimi and Koga’s book. I’m looking forward to diving into some of Adler’s original work.